The Strange History of Final Games in Stadiums Slated for Demolition

Loot, loot, loot for the home team

If you're hoping to attend the sold-out-since-the-Truman-administration final games at Yankee Stadium (this Sunday) or Shea Stadium (the Sunday after), you'd better be independently wealthy. At last check, final-game tickets for sale on StubHub started at $125 for the Mets and $250 for the Yanks. And that Yankees price is for a seat in the left-field bleachers—one enterprising speculator was seeking a mere $16,000 and change for each of four front-row Bronx ducats.

It was not always thus for stadium swan songs. The departure of the Dodgers from Brooklyn may be a legendary moment even for those in the borough who weren't born yet, but remarkably few turned out to bear witness: Only 6,702 showed up at Ebbets Field on September 24, 1957, to hear organist Gladys Gooding play "California, Here I Come." According to a contemporary report in Sports Illustrated, the sparse crowd "seemed to regard the occasion as just another ball game." (This wasn't, incidentally, the final baseball game at Ebbets: Long Island University played its home games there in 1959, and on August 23 of that year, the one and only Satchel Paige yielded the final Ebbets home run, in an exhibition game of Black and Latino stars before about 4,000 fans.) Five days later, just 11,606 showed up to bid farewell to the Giants at the Polo Grounds; when the Mets later made the big Manhattan horseshoe their home for two seasons, their finale drew an even more piddling 1,752. The wave of vintage stadiums that fell to the wrecking ball in the early '70s—Sportsman's Park, Forbes Field, Crosley Field—to make way for the "concrete donut" craze fared somewhat better, but still, none sold out their final games.

Something that was a common sight on the final days of ballparks in that era: looting. The day after the Giants closed up shop at the Polo Grounds, the Daily News ran a photo of a fan tearing through the crowd with home plate tucked under his arm, fullback-style. At Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, fans ripped out urinals from the bathroom walls; when the Senators absconded from Washington at the end of 1971, souvenir hunters mobbed the field with two outs in the ninth, prompting a forfeit. ("There won't be much left of the scoreboard," Senators radio announcer Tony Roberts calmly reported to listeners at home. "It's like an army of ants out there, going through the jungle.") Even Yankee Stadium's final game before the city ripped off its roof and swathed the old structure in cinderblock—attended by a modest crowd of 32,238—saw thousands of fans abscond with seats as illicit souvenirs, though according to Mike Wagner, a final-game attendee who is working on a book on the stadium's '70s renovation, most were politely relieved of their contraband cargo before leaving the ballpark.

Probably the first team to see dollar signs in ballpark nostalgia was the Chicago White Sox, which in 1990 lured fans to the final season at Comiskey Park—then baseball's oldest—with the slogan "Years from now, you'll say you were there." (A more cynical fan at that year's final game unfurled a banner: "Years from now, you'll park here.") The following year, the Baltimore Orioles—who had already realized the appeal of baseball history when they garnished their new Camden Yards design with brick and exposed-steel beams—marked the passing of Memorial Stadium by having local legends like Earl Weaver and Boog Powell greet fans at the gates, and bringing every living former Oriole out to take their place on the field at game's end. The final-game extravaganza had been born.

Today, it's a given that every old stadium, whether historic or homely, will get a big send-off—even the Phillies trotted out a parade of former players for Veterans Stadium's last game in 2003. (It was, in all likelihood, Mike Schmidt's only appearance at the Vet for which he wasn't booed.) And as has become common practice, fans hoping for souvenirs had to open their wallets rather than their toolboxes, as the Phils auctioned off everything from player lockers to bags of pitcher's-mound dirt before demolition day. New York's teams are no exception: The Mets report that Shea seats are selling briskly at $869 a pop ('86 and '69—get it?), while the Yanks' seat sale is on hold as the team haggles with the city over how much of a cut it will get for acting as salesperson, and how much taxpayers—who actually own both stadiums, seats and all—will get out of the deal. The Mets, meanwhile, have already announced a "zero-tolerance policy" for fans who attempt to make off with bits of Shea before the official dismantling.

"It's like squeezing the last little toothpaste out of the tube," says John Pastier, stadium historian and author of the book Historic Ballparks. "Whenever a team is seeking public funds for a new ballpark, they decry the one they have—'it's outmoded,' 'it's an economic albatross,' 'it's not good for the fans.' But once it's time to leave the old joint, they'll play the final season nostalgia card and try to cash in on that."

 
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